This 2013 Clean Feed release finds Kris Davis leading a Brooklyn-based creative jazz quintet featuring musicians -- saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, violist Mat Maneri, double bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Tom Rainey -- so highly attuned to the pianist/composer's conception that her guiding hand sometimes seems barely perceptible, yet the group is never less than wholly unified. Which means Davis is both leader and collaborator in the best and truest sense of those words. Many of the pieces on Capricorn Climber begin with themes or dialogues voiced searchingly by one or more of the ensemble members, and while the title track, "Pi Is Irrational," "Big Band Ball," and "Dreamers in a Daze" don't begin forcefully, some form of energized catharsis is ultimately in store. Yet even as the music lingers in a free rhythmic zone with fragmented, initially hesitant motifs, the sonic puzzle pieces fit together with a combination of improvisational looseness and the clear-cut intention of chamberesque modern composition, with nothing out of place. And as the music proceeds, the routes taken toward apexes of tight unison lines or roiling free jazz demonstrate remarkable intuition among the bandmembers, with Davis as both catalyst and wholly involved participant.
The 11-and-a-half-minute "Capricorn Climber" begins with the pianist and Maneri in probing interplay with an improvised yet wholly connected feel before Laubrock and Dunn state a brief opening line together, setting a framework for a continued ramping up of the group's overall engagement and Rainey's entry into the proceedings -- he is, of course, the perfect drummer for this music, which calls for coloristic contributions that are at least as important as rhythmic ones. Each bandmember somehow avoids a cacophonous intrusion into the others' well-defined spaces as the quintet deliberately escalates its collective energy to nearly fearsome levels, before settling down for a subdued landing on a plateau of long arco string lines embellished by Davis' variegated post-minimalist ostinatos, beginning with nervousness and ending hypnotically. The threesome of Davis, Dunn, and Rainey are telepathic from the start of the ten-minute "Pass the Magic Hat," in a rolling semi-swinging feature for the pianist to build intensity in her solo lines supported by the bass-drums tandem -- characteristically, the trio seems relatively loose and spacious until quite explicitly proving its focus with a unison stop and angular theme, which Laubrock interacts with playfully and then joins with spirited force, before the track's midpoint detour into (initially) calmer waters. Here, Maneri steps out with one of the album's rough-hewn, double-stop-laden viola solos over the band's measured pace, while, next up in the track listing, Dunn gets his own opportunity to shine with the bass solo intro to "Trevor's Luffa Complex," whose gradually revealed spiky theme seems influenced by Davis' occasional duo partner Tim Berne. From start to finish, Capricorn Climber engages rather stealthily, arriving at clear destinations without making obvious all the steps in the journey to get there.